Neuroscience and Fundamentalism

By Heilman, Kenneth M.; Donda, Russell S. | Tikkun, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Neuroscience and Fundamentalism


Heilman, Kenneth M., Donda, Russell S., Tikkun


SOMETHING CHANGED. Whether it happened gradually over several hundred thousand years, as noted anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks suggest, or quickly in a "great leap forward," as Jared Diamond puts it, we are at least certain of this: early humans became dissatisfied with their circumstances and began to diverge from what was practiced and known. Stone implements gave way to the more easily shaped and versatile bone. Bare cave walls were brought to life with paintings. Adorning jewelry was carefully fashioned from ordinary objects previously ignored. Simple weapons, somehow now seen as insufficient, gave way to more complex and multi-piece devices. The notions to plant instead of gather, to breed captive animals rather than hunt them, took hold.

Humans have altered their environments and enhanced their well-being unlike any other life form on the planet. This unique capacity to diverge from what is, and create something which has never before existed, resides solely within the domain of humanity. The gifts of diverse artistic expression, societal development, and technological innovation all result from the ability to question-and to conceive of things beyond-the status quo. And this magnificent and advanced capability results, not unexpectedly, from an evolved and complex brain.

Clinging or adhering to a currently accepted practice, for example believing stone tools are perfectly fine, and questioning and searching for new tool solutions (in other words, to wonder if bone might make a more suitable implement) represent two very different ways of dealing with current circumstances. Adherence begets consistency or stability; questioning, searching, and discovering innovative alternatives, which is creativity, leads to change.

Certainly, human acts of consistency or creativity require a highly elaborate and functional brain. listone was an adequate tool material, we at least had the good sense to continue using it after the first try. Still, there is something special about the desire for novel alternatives. No other being with which we share the planet demonstrates the human capacity to continuously spawn newness. It is the height of evolution and stems from some of the most evolved and sophisticated parts of the brain.

The implication that adherence behavior could involve a more primitive or phylogenetically older portion of the brain should not be an altogether startling notion. After all, given the most basic understanding, we would expect that early humans eventually became unstuck from various conditions because of an increasingly evolved reasoning power. Our capacity for creativity expanded and so we conceived of new and often better ways to do things.

Could this same logic begin to offer some insight into why, today, some people seem unwilling to break free from certain beliefs or ideologies which are contrary to sound science, or worse, lead to terrible acts of inhumanity? Especially when those beliefs stem from an unconditional adherence to religious fundamentalism? While there have been many reasons offered about why people differ in their interpretation of authoritative texts like the Koran and Bible, most seem based on environmental/educational influences. But perhaps there is another explanation worth exploring.

A common thread that may weave its way through fundamentalist extremism was perhaps aptly expressed by three so-called reformed fundamentalists during the American Public Media special, "The Power of Fundamentalism." Representing each of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, they implied they were taught to believe as they were told, and that personal interpretation and imagination were to be marginalized. Deviation and creativity were unacceptable.

If this is the case, how is it that one person can find it utterly intolerable to believe anything other than a given interpretation of religious doctrine, while another appears comfortable with adding his or her own meaning to the same literature? …

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